Commission calls for more COVID testing sites

Officials split on requiring masks


BAY MINETTE – Baldwin County commissioners are calling for more COVID-19 testing sites but are split on requiring masks in county facilities.

The Baldwin County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Gov. Kay Ivey, State Health Officer Scott Harris and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to provide more public testing sites for the coronavirus.

In the two weeks before the meeting, the number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Baldwin County more than doubled, from 422 on June 22 to 864 on July 6.

Commission Chairwoman Billie Jo Underwood said more testing sites would provide relief for private facilities.

“I spoke to different ones yesterday,” Underwood said. “There’s been a lot of desire for that to happen. There are certain areas that are a little overloaded due to the rise in the positive cases of COVID-19 in Baldwin County.”

Officials said the only government testing site now operating in Baldwin is the Alabama Department of Public Health office in Robertsdale.

Commissioner Joe Davis said no other county with as many people or cases as Baldwin has as few testing sites.

“It’s not to throw rough rocks, but it is about fairness and equity,” Davis said. “And if we’ve got 212,000-plus people, one or two sites is woefully lacking, and we need that changed and we need that changed as soon as possible.”

Commissioner Charles “Skip” Gruber said the increase shows that COVID-19 is not going away in Baldwin County.

“We had some numbers that really escalated last week,” Gruber said. “I think those numbers would be a lot higher if we were testing more because we’re not testing as much. It’s scary not knowing what’s not going to happen with this virus.”

At a commission work session Monday, Gruber asked the commission to consider requiring people in county buildings to require face masks.

“With the pandemic that we’re having. I don’t know if y’all keep track of the numbers are escalating, terrible,” Gruber said. “Is there any way that we could go ahead and maybe make it required that people wear masks in our buildings, coming in and everything else? It’s coming to that anyway and I’m thinking that maybe the people who are seeing people out front are masked.”

Commissioner Jeb Ball said the county is following state mandates set by Ivey.

“We are following the governor’s orders,” Ball said. “The governor has not made it mandatory for mask wearing, but she made it a recommendation and I think we stay along with the governor’s orders and what it reflects until she does otherwise. I can’t be a part of mandatory. I’m not going to force our employees to wear stuff.”

Ball said he would not wear a mask and did not support requiring others to do so.

“I just don’t buy the mask theory and I want hard-core evidence where that’s been proven to work,” Ball said.

Underwood said the commission should get advice from medical experts before deciding what policy to set for employees and the public.

“I would like someone to provide some guidance to us that we could use from a qualified health professional rather than a trend,” Underwood said. “I’m certainly not opposed if it’s a necessity, but if it’s just a trend, I don’t want to be following a trend. I want to make sure that it’s something that we need to do.”

Davis said that while masks are not mandatory, he encouraged people to take precautions against spreading the coronavirus.

“I’m not criticizing those of you who didn’t wear them, but it is a mistaken concept that it protects you, but it also mistaken that we don’t know which one of us can spread it to anybody else and if one of us in this room today comes down with COVID, every one of us have got to be dealt with and, if a mask can delay, postpone or put off,” Davis said, I encourage everybody to wear a mask, particularly when they’re interacting with other people.”